Let’s talk about Martin Scorsese a bit, shall we? The much-lauded, Oscar-winning director/producer/film historian has rightly been recognized as one of out greatest living filmmakers, with classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED on his resume. Yet Scorsese started small, directing shorts and the low-budget WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? as a film student. He got work as an editor (UNHOLY ROLLERS) and assistant director (WOODSTOCK) before directing a feature for Roger Corman called BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. When Scorsese and Mardik Martin cowrote a screenplay based on Martin’s experiences growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Corman wanted to produce, but only if the film could be turned into a Blaxploitation movie! Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked it up, and the result was MEAN STREETS, which put Scorsese on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.
MEAN STREETS follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), a young man with ambitions to move up in his insular neighborhood. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is a loan shark, a ‘man of respect’, and Charlie works for him as a debt collector. His uncle wants to grace him with the ownership of a restaurant currently in dire financial straights, but Charlie’s got problems. One of those problems is his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a loose cannon who owes money to everybody. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy with their pal, fellow shark Michael (Richard Romanus), but the wild child hasn’t paid up.
Charlie’s also hampered by his Catholic guilt, torn between religious convictions and life on the streets. He’s got another issue: he’s been having an affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whose epilepsy makes her a neighborhood pariah. All this spells trouble for Charlie’s ambitions on these mean streets, where everybody’s on the hustle, respect is valued above all, and violence is a way of life…
This is the film where Scorsese first developed his distinctive style, freed from the constraints of working for someone else’s vision, albeit on a much smaller scale and budget than in films to come. First, there’s the violence; it comes swiftly, without warning, and is brutal and uncompromising. Scorsese brought screen violence to new artistic heights, aided here by the lightning-quick editing of Sidney Levin, who like Scorsese had cut his teeth on AIP Exploitation fare (THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE YOUNG ANIMALS), and would later edit more mainstream films (NORMA RAE, MURPHY’S ROMANCE).
Being an unrepentant film buff, Scorsese peppers his film with homages to some of his favorites. Most noticeable is when his characters go to the movies, and scenes from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA play onscreen; posters and marquees from other movies dot the landscape. The characters of MEAN STREETS are constantly at war, with themselves as well as those who dwell in their world, and Scorsese references several war films during the course of the action. There are plenty of other examples, but I’ll leave that for you to discover… Happy Hunting!
Most importantly is the way Scorsese incorporates contemporary rock music into MEAN STREETS; the soundtrack of the character’s lives almost becomes a character itself. The film uses songs by The Rolling Stones (‘Tell Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘I Looked Away’), Smokey Robinson (‘Mickey’s Monkey’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), Cream (‘Steppin’/Out’), Betty Everett (‘It’s in His Kiss’), Johnny Ace (‘Pledging My Love’), and others, as well as traditional Italian tunes from his childhood. All these musical cues have meaning to the scene at hand, and Scorsese was one of the first to utilize pop music as a film score, a device that’s de rigueur in films today.
Martin Scorsese would go on to further explore crime and it’s consequences, but MEAN STREETS was his first attempt at making a personal statement, and it holds up well today. When his newest film THE IRISHMAN is released later this year, a direct lineage to MEAN STREETS can be traced – both DeNiro and Keitel will appear in the film. Scorsese is still going strong at age 76, one of The Greatest Living American Filmmakers, and MEAN STREETS remains essential viewing for all film buffs.